Obituary: Joseph Start / Tough homicide captain investigated gruesome crimes
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Joseph Start, a tough homicide captain who carried a Tommy gun slug in his shoulder for much of his life after being accidentally shot by his own boss in 1948, died Saturday at his Sewickley residence.
He was 91 and had lived in Sewickley his entire life except for the years he spent overseas during World War II.
Mr. Start spent 28 years as a county detective, starting shortly after he returned home following service with the Army Air Forces.
He rose to captain of the homicide unit in the 1960s, a post he held for a decade until he was fired by District Attorney Jack Hickton -- father of today's U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, David Hickton -- in a political shake-up that cost 12 other detectives their jobs.
He later served as secretary for Ohio Township, retiring in 1986.
Mr. Start handled hundreds of homicides across the region and was regularly quoted in the papers regarding one gruesome killing or another.
There was the German ballerina found slain in Fawn (1968), the gambling racketeer discovered dead in Wilkinsburg (1957), and the University of Pittsburgh student who murdered his parents in Natrona Heights (1972).
Mr. Start recalled that last case in a 2004 news story when killer Jack Lee Colin resurfaced as a potential suspect in other murders, recounting the strange doll collection he kept on his shelf.
"He had cut the feet off the dolls," he said. "He painted the toes of the dolls and put them in a drawer."
This was Mr. Start's world. He liked being a cop and was good at telling stories, his widow said, but he often just wanted to unwind after long days of investigating terrible crimes.
"Some of them were pretty disgusting," said Suzanne Start, his wife of 63 years. "When he came home, he just wanted to play with the kids and relax a little."
Mr. Start was a young detective in 1948 when a friendly-fire incident in East Liberty first landed him in the headlines.
Police were hunting for two men wanted in the shooting of two Bethel Township (now Bethel Park Borough) police officers, one of whom died. Detectives decided to lay a trap at the Mellon Street home of one of the suspects, Edward DePofi Jr.
Assistant Police Chief Edward Burke hid in the house, waiting for Mr. DePofi.
When two men showed up outside, detectives confronted them. Neither man was one of the shooters, it turned out. But they ran because they said the police did not identify themselves and they thought they were being robbed.
Chief Burke heard the commotion, ran out with a Tommy gun and opened fire on the fleeing men. He hit one of them, Edward Cooperstein, in the lower back. He also shot Mr. Start, who was giving chase.
The incident embarrassed the police, especially when witnesses contradicted the district attorney's version of events, but Mr. Start recovered from his wound. The .45-caliber slug narrowly missed his spine and stayed in his back for decades until a surgeon finally removed it.
"He was just very lucky," Suzanne Start said.
He returned to the force, working all manner of cases until becoming head of homicide in the mid-1960s.
His wife said he was devoted to being a detective, proud of being in charge of the prestigious homicide squad and particularly gratified to be trusted as a member of security details for visiting presidents.
He served in that role for five of them: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He also protected Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when he visited Pittsburgh in 1959.
It all ended in 1974 with a restructuring of the police force. Mr. Start was not pleased.
"Things were very political at the time," he recalled in 1985. "Hickton sent me a very flowery letter that, in essence, said the position was being eliminated."
Mr. Start worked briefly as a private investigator for several lawyers before landing the Ohio Township job in September 1974. He stayed there for 11 years, generally earning praise for the work he did as secretary, treasurer and zoning officer, until retiring at age 64.
In his retirement he enjoyed golf and his duties at Cochran Hose Co. in Sewickley, where he was a lifelong member.
Besides his wife, Mr. Start is survived by his sons, Jay of Vandergrift and Jefrey of Erie.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Richard D. Cole Funeral Home in Sewickley.
First Published June 18, 2012 12:00 am